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Review: Godforsaken by Mark Sanford-Wood

PUBLISHED: 16:20 11 May 2015

Godforsaken

Godforsaken

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Annette Shaw reviews Godforsaken by Mark Sanford-Wood

This is the debut novel by Mark Sanford-Wood, a Devon based doctor. To say it has impact is an understatement. This book moves in and stays with you. Beginning in 1939 it follows the story of Freddie Zamoyski. Caught between the pincers of the German blitzkrieg and Stalin’s treachery, Zamoyski fights tenaciously in defence of his beloved Poland. The book is harrowing in places but it’s also about faith, love and redemption.

This is not one of those books that you have to get into. You’re in it. From the first line. “Freddie Zamoyski died before I met him.” Says Tom, the Catholic chaplain to Whipps Cross Hospital in London. Then the medics work their magic and the ECG machine fires back into life. Zamoyski needs to make a confession and Tom has been called to the Coronary Care Unit.

In the early 1990’s Mark Sanford-Wood, having read medicine at Cambridge University and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, was working as a junior doctor in Hackney. He had responsibilities in two psychiatric wards and explains how this time in his medical career sowed seeds that took some 20 years to germinate, culminating in this debut novel. “There was a dementia ward and a functional ward where most of the patients had depression,” says Mark. “Being in daily contact with them allowed trust to build and the superficial veneer to fall away. A high percentage were from the Jewish community and slowly I heard their stories, getting a real sense of what had happened to them.”

A move to general practice brought Mark to North Devon, to a surgery in Barnstaple. “Strangely, I found my list included a vibrant Eastern European community with many being originally from Poland and Lithuania.” Once again he listened to war memories. “It’s almost as if word got around! And before I knew it I had a steady stream of patients who had settled here and I became immersed in the horrendous stories of what happened to them during World War II, counselling and helping where I could.” One man, a German from Bavaria, had been in Stalingrad. “In a modern consulting room, in Devon, at the end of the 20th Century, it’s hard to find the words that reflect the sheer incongruity of the situation in which I found myself, listening to a man who had survived through cannibalism. It was he who informed me of the best part of a human to eat.”

Thus, Godforsaken is a work of fiction but it is based on firsthand accounts. “It’s an authentic reflection,” says Mark. “It needed to be written for many reasons, including our understanding of survivor guilt.” He continues by explaining that although you can’t draw generalisations, it’s not just the act of surviving that makes people feel guilty. “Once you get behind that, when the public face and protection dissolve, it’s about what these people really feel and the realisation comes that it’s what they had to do to survive. If you put 1000 people in an extreme situation, the ones that come through will have done extreme things.” Mark then recounts the story of a woman who’d been in Auschwitz. “Her sister died in the concentration camp. My patient told me she’d stolen her sister’s food, an act that quite probably saved her, and thus followed a lifetime of guilt.”

So it is with Freddie Zamoyski. In the very little time he has left, Freddie tells Tom what happened, how he escaped the captivity of Stalin’s gulag and his torturer, the evil Volkov. It is shocking and in parts harrowing. The climax of the narrative comes as readers are invited to ask themselves what choice they would make if they were faced with the opportunity for revenge. The decision is thrown into starker relief through the main character’s deep religious faith, which is therefore also tested in the denouement.

Mark wrote to over 50 literary agents to no avail. He therefore took the decision to self-publish. Although there a few instances of journalistic licence, Mark draws on his interest in military history to write in a way that is authentic. Furthermore, his training as a doctor gives an edge that makes the book incredibly thought provoking. For example, in the coronary unit, taping the confession, Tom asks Freddie about the German invasion of Poland in 1939:

“Did you feel no fear at all?” Freddie smiled wistfully. “Semik was right. Once you acclimatise to your inevitable death then what is there to fear?”

I was pleased to see Freddie recovering from his ordeal the day before. He was tired, and we agreed to end for the day. We both knew that the following morning would hear his account of the Battle of Wegierska Gorka, and no doubt that would be painful. But we also both knew that death in battle was in the natural order of things and somehow made it safe.”

This book is not what you’d call enjoyable. It leaves you jangled and stays with you. It addresses a subject that is far from pleasurable. However, it does flip into a love story which serves to show how we can experience the very best and the very worst. As a choice for book groups Godforsaken would lead to a fascinating discussion on many levels - much more than everyone agreeing the selected title is a jolly good read. It’s also suspected that there will be agents and publishers who wish they had replied.

To see more of Annette Shaw reviews then visit DevonLife

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